July 10th, 2013

Learning with Students vs. Doing for Students


Every now and again I come across a quote that follows me around for the rest of the day, if not several days. That happened this week and here’s the quote, “I see myself as a learner first, thus I create my classes with learners, not for them ….”

When I think about classes I think about myself as a teacher first. So, I’ve been trying to imagine facing a teaching task from the perspective of a learner.
We do think about ourselves as learners in a generic, holistic way when we design courses. I hear it often in my workshops. “I try to make it a class I’d like to take.” Or, on the other side, “I work to avoid those things about classes I didn’t like when I was a student.” Taking this stance assumes that we and our students do and don’t like the same things and that’s a pretty tenuous assumption, especially for those of us who haven’t taken courses for some years. It might be a viable premise if we were comparing our likes with those of other really bright students, but is our thinking that fine tuned?

The quote represents another push away from teaching and toward learning. But the preposition “with” makes it something more than just another admonition to be more learner-centered. Classes are created with learners, not for them. Even given my long-standing interest in learner-centered teaching, I have to be honest and admit, I created courses and now create workshops for learners, not with them.

How would a teacher thinking of herself as a learner go about creating courses with students? The quote’s author does it with the syllabus, which she points out is typically “constructed solely from the teacher’s interests, goals, and expectations or requirements leaving little room for student input.” (p. 41) In other words, what we distribute to students on the first day of class is a done deal. She contrasts that with a syllabus that “perform[s] as a living, negotiated document.” (p. 41) It begins with these four questions:

  • What topics or areas are of greatest interest to us as a class?
  • How can we adapt the classroom space to be conducive to cultivating enhanced communication?
  • How can we best connect our readings and discussions to our everyday lives?
  • How can we best support and engage with multiple learning styles throughout the semester?

With these questions as guides, she and her students construct the course syllabus. Once it’s created, students “sign a classroom agreement, acknowledging individual and group responsibility for their learning process.” (p. 42)

I suspect that’s an example that makes many of us a bit uncomfortable, and it does raise a number of issues. In most of our courses we aren’t at liberty to cover only those topics that interest us and our students. So, I’m not sharing the example as a recommendation. However, I do believe there’s merit in thinking about ourselves as learners who do things with students. Thinking that way has brought to mind all sorts of things I have learned with students—things about the content, about what helps them learn, things that have improved my teaching and changed what I do in courses. But I don’t think I ever considered what I was learning along with students.

I’m not just ready to give up on the idea of doing things for students. What about those things we do for students that arise out of our legitimate domains of expertise? We offer explanations, provide examples, and solve sample problems that help students understand. Now, I can see teachers doing too many things for students; things students should be doing for themselves. I also can see us not realizing that some things we think we do for students actually may benefit us more than them.

I like the idea of both; learning with students and doing things for students. Perhaps there’s a reciprocal relationship between the two. I end up doing beneficial things for students if I use what I have learned by doing things with them.

Reference: Blimme, K. C. (2013). Start with the syllabus: HELPing learning learn through class content collaboration. College Teaching, 61, 41-43.